An open letter to a citizen trapped in the Port Harcourt rubble

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By Pius Adesanmi

DEAR Citizen X,

IT is tough to know which tense to use for you, present or past. The earthquake in Haiti and the Thai cave disaster are pointers to the fact that you may very well still be alive nearly ten days after Nigeria happened to you – she happens to us all except the one percenters, doesn’t she? – and that seven-storey building collapsed and trapped you. Nearly two weeks after the earthquake, victims were still being pulled out alive in Haiti. The Thai boys were rescued after 18 days. This gives me hope that you are still alive; that you are still with us; that you are still of us.

No matter how hellish its earthly address, the human spirit does not sever the ties easily. So, let me write this letter in the present tense in the hope that you are still here with us. If you are still alive, you are most probably dehydrated and unconscious, hanging on by a thread. Also, one cannot speak to the condition of your body. After all, a seven-storey building collapsed on you and a gory mix of smashed concrete and shattered metal has been your underground home now for ten days. Therefore, I must write gently.

I am so sorry that this has happened to you. I also feel for your relatives and loved ones who, like you, are alone in this moment of great anguish and tragedy. I mention hellish addresses on earth. In wishing that you are still alive, I am a little bit conflicted. Nigeria, being one of the world’s most hellish man-made shitholes, wishing that someone hangs on here a little longer when they are already one leg outta the door is an ethical dilemma and a moral impasse.

“They’ve gone to be in a better place” is a metaphorical ointment rubbed on the grief of relatives of dead people in other climes. In Nigeria, it is dangerously and tragically literal. It is not a metaphor. To be alive in Nigeria is to cope with 24 hours of avoidable hells every day and to celebrate to high heavens and cut ribbons over development milestones they started taking for granted more than a decade ago in Chad, Lesotho, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea.

Dear Citizen X, I know you already guessed it, but it bears repeating: We do not know how many of you are down there in that rubble in Port Harcourt. You know that Nigeria can be defined as a sadomasochistic way of taking pleasure in resisting progress and civilisation. We did not know how to count before you went under ten days ago. Ten days are sadly not enough to learn how to count. My suspicion is that the British hoarded mathematics, arithmetic, algebra, data, and such other things from us, never mind that those originated in Africa.

You know that we don’t even know how many of us are here alive. The population of Nigeria depends on who is playing politics and for what ends. We are around two hundred million; we are roughly 180 million; we are an estimated 160 million. Different government offices and institutions could give you different versions of these guesstimates at any given time.

I doubt if we know exactly how many people work in the Nigerian Presidency. Recently, a fine gentleman we put in charge of counting things for the country, one of our finest, Dr. Yemi Kale, screamed that he has no money to do any counting. That is Nigeria happening to him and turning him to someone who does not know what he is doing. If Nigeria happens to Albert Einstein, he will fail JAMB. May Nigeria never happen to you.

Those for whom counting the living in the 21st is rocket science, do not bother about the business of accurately counting the dead, the wounded or, in your tragic case, the trapped and dying.

Not knowing how many of you are down under, dear Citizen X, is sadly not the worst news. It would interest you to know that nine days after you were buried alive in that rubble, your president, Mr. Muhammadu Buhari, jetted out to Poland. As he and my amiable state governor, Yahaya Bello, flew over waters and mountains, they took selfies that were released to us as they were in flight. I saw your smiling president and thought about you under that rubble: Bloodied, broken bones, charred flesh, running out of oxygen in your confined space.

Dear Citizen X, I wish I could tell you that on reading this letter, your president’s supporters would do what they usually do but that would be peine perdue because we know them and could write the script of their herdish thinking for them. They’d compound your victimhood and tragedy by saying: What has the president got to do with this? Is this not the responsibility of the local authorities in Rivers State? Is this not Wike’s business? And bla. And bla. And bla. And patati. And patata.

The connection between things and the organic linkages in a body politic called a state are beyond their purview. So, they will not understand that world leaders cut short foreign trips precisely because of what happened to you. They will not understand that a seven-story building collapse in any part of civilisation would have made any of the leaders assembled in Buenos Aires to abandon the summit and rush back home. They will not understand that the local authorities in Rivers State may be the jackasses we know them to be; you, under that rubble, are evidence of a vast architecture of national incompetence and insouciance supervised by the leader of the Nigerian federal state.

Dear Citizen X, your journey to that rubble – and perhaps to death – started four years ago. Every detail of your four-year journey has been choreographed and enabled by the Nigerian state and her institutions. Four years ago, a building owned by Prophet T.B. Joshua collapsed in Lagos and killed hundreds of people. Most of the dead were South African citizens. To this day, it is the single largest number of South African dead ever recorded outside of South Africa.

South Africa went into shock. As they mourned across South Africa, the Nigerian authorities were more worried about Pastor T.B. Joshua. He is one of them. He is a Nigerian one percenter. So, the machinery of state solidarity moved in around him. Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola and President Goodluck Jonathan (Ambode and Buhari would have done the same thing) paid T.B. Joshua highly publicised “condolence visits”. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was truly disgraceful. Here was a criminal who had violated building codes and should have been immediately arrested being condoled and treated like the victim by a governor and the president!

The Nigerian authorities went further to protect T.B. Joshua. The South Africans wanted answers. In Nigeria, you could buy and muzzle the media. However, the South African media was a different proposition. Many TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers wanted to send teams to Nigeria to investigate the incident and, most importantly, talk to T.B. Joshua. I am quite well connected in South Africa. I have visited and lectured annually in South Africa since 1997. Friends in South African media began to whisper to me: “Pius, the Nigerian authorities are making it difficult for South African journalists to secure visas. Do you think they are shielding prophet T.B. Joshua from the South African media?”

Every Nigerian knows the answer to these questions. Outrage eventually made the Nigerian authorities pretend to be doing something about T.B. Joshua. The Lagos state authorities filed some useless, perfunctory lawsuits designed to fail. To this day, those law suits are dragging. T.B. Joshua has never even bothered to honour the courts with an appearance. Nigeria rolled on from that incident, leaving the South Africans to gnash their teeth without closure for the affected families.

Dear Citizen X, there were no consequences whatsoever for what happened four years ago. This culture of lack of consequences runs in a straight line from Lagos to Port Harcourt and is further compounded by the colossal irresponsibility of the Nigerian media. I wish I could tell you that Nigerian media editors have trended and maintained you in the headlines. Sadly, because the Nigerian authorities buy them en masse to bury embarrassing stories – I hear it is buy one media executive and get the second one free – you are not trending anywhere in Nigeria.

Your only chance of becoming a national issue now, worthy of more than a perfunctory social media statement from the Presidency, is if Reuters, AFP, Al-Jazeera, and BBC somehow sustain the focus on you beyond their initial run of your story. This will force the hands of the local media and make the Nigerian authorities talk to their Ogas at Shell and Julius Berger to move in heavier equipment.

If President Buhari also thinks that coming to the site of the rubble for photo-ops straight from Poland would help 2019 electoral optics, then you may be lucky if you are still alive. However, I won’t hold my breath, no pun intended. As commander-in-chief, it took him more than five days to acknowledge the loss of more than a hundred troops and he did so with characteristic reluctance and only after his continued callous silence had become politically costly. I am aware that they issued a hollow statement after the wife of the opposition visited Port Harcourt. I am afraid that may be all.

Citizen X, your country failed you. Your president failed you. Your state governor failed you. Your institutions failed you. However, if you do not make it out alive, I want you to go happy in the knowledge that your relatives and ordinary people did not abandon you. They are the lone, unheard, and unheeded voices screaming on social media because of you. And at the site of that rubble, you may not be able to see them, but I have seen video clips of ordinary, everyday Nigerians, wielding hammers, hoes, cutlasses, many of them shirtless and shoeless, risking their lives digging, searching desperately for you.

I have wept quietly as I have seen them. If you do not make it, this is the last image of us I beg you to take with you to the great beyond: with nothing, left to our own devices by our irresponsible leaders, we did not forget you. We are there in Port Harcourt, digging with our bare hands and looking for you. We are a good people.

Sail on, Citizen X, sail on to your maker or back to us as your head decides it.

Your helpless compatriot,
Pius Adesanmi

Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada. He tweets @pius_adesanmi.

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